Once Upon a Time in the Library

Once upon a time the famous physicist Albert Einstein was confronted by an overly concerned woman who sought advice on how to raise her small son to become a successful scientist.

In particular, she wanted to know what kinds of books she should read to her son.

‘Fairy tales,’ Einstein responded without hesitation.

‘Fine, but what else should I read to him after that?’ the mother asked.

‘More fairy tales,’ Einstein stated.

‘And after that?’

‘Even more fairy tales,’ replied the great scientist, and he waved his pipe like a wizard pronouncing a happy end to a long adventure. 

From Breaking the Magic Spell: radical theories of folk and fairy tales by Jack Zipes.

I have always loved fairy tales. I read stories collected by the Brothers Grimm when I was very young (Albert Einstein would be so proud), then quickly plowed through collections by Charles PerraultHans Christian Andersen and Andrew Lang in elementary school. I discovered the African and Caribbean tales by Harold Courlander and the Japanese ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn in 6th grade.

And then came Beauty

Robin McKinley's lush retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" sparkled for me with something new:  a familiar tale retold in a sensible voice. McKinley's main character is no singing Disney princess; rather, she is practical, hardworking, and most importantly, not pretty. Beauty accepts the challenge to live in the Beast's castle with the invisible servants and the marvelous rose garden, and by the end of the story, she discovers truth about the Beast (and about herself, too).

With Beauty, I had not only found a new author to love, but a whole new genre. Fracturing fairy tales is not a new tradition--storytellers have been changing familiar tropes around to suit their audiences since the days of stone knives and bear skins--but modern publishing has embraced and encouraged the process so much that one blog post could never sufficiently encompass the full wonder.

And yet, I will try. Here are a few of my all-time retold favorites:

Ella Enchanted is one of many fractured fairy tales retold by Gail Carson Levine, and probably one of her best.  In this twist on the Cinderella story, Ella of Frell is gifted with "obedience" by a well-meaning but misguided fairy godmother. She copes with a stepmother and stepsisters, and befriends Prince Charmant. And then her "gift" becomes more than just a nuisance. The 2004 movie wasn't nearly as engaging as the book, but the audiobook was fun.

For a completely different twist on the Cinderella story, try Cinder, the story of a teen cyborg with two stepsisters and a stepmother. While working as an android mechanic, Cinder meets up with the charming Prince Kai, who invites her to a fancy ball. Fairytale elements in this book are artfully re-cast, and the story partially returned to its Chinese roots. The fairy godmother is a household droid, the pumpkin coach is an ugly, roundish, orange automobile, and the glass slipper is a too-small cyborg foot that comes detached at just the right moment. Cinder is volume 1 in a series of science fiction/fairy tale mashups.

"Cinderella" isn't the only fairy tale to support fracturing, of course. Another oft-retold story is "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." If you only know the Barbie interpretation, I have wonderful news:  the story is much better when narrated by eldest princess Azalea in Entwined. When Azalea's mother dies giving birth to the twelfth princess, her father the King declares that there will be no dancing for a year. But the princesses are determined to dance, and the secret magical ballroom under the castle seems like the perfect place.  But the Keeper who presides over the ballroom has other, darker plans for the girls.

Ah, but what about the boys? Girls aren't the only characters that authors use to retell old stories. In Rump, the title character of the "Rumpelstiltskin" relates the narrative from his point of view--and the resulting tale is both different and delightful.

The library offers hundreds of fractured fairy tales for readers of all ages. Search our catalog for "fairy tales" to find more--or ask the library staff to recommend something wonderful!